Thursday, April 25, 2013

Upcoming Events: Michigan State University April 30

I look forward to giving a brown-bag talk about U.S. food policy at the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, Michigan State University, this Tuesday, April 30, at noon.  Location: 338 Natural Resources Building.  Come visit and say hello.

Then, I will be in Detroit from April 30 late afternoon to May 2 for a meeting of the AGree agricultural policy initiative.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Josh Balk of HSUS at the Friedman School April 24

Josh Balk, director of corporate policy for the farm animal protection campaign of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), will speak at the Friedman School, tomorrow, Wednesday, April 24, at 12:15 pm, in the Behrakis Auditorium of the Jaharis Building on Tufts University's Boston Campus.

The abstract says:
His seminar will offer an exceptional opportunity to discuss the controversial strategies and tactics used by HSUS, addressing the vexing issue of animal welfare in a meat-eating society.
You may register to see a live stream of this presentation.

I will introduce the event and moderate a conversation afterwards.

I have been especially interested in the work of HSUS in recent years, following the organization's successful negotiation with leading egg industry associations about egg production practices and labeling.  You can read an impartial and even-handed summary of that agreement (.pdf) from the Congressional Research Service.

The Humane Society is one of the few major public interest organizations that shares my curiosity about the semi-governmental National Pork Board's questionable $60 million purchase of the "Other White Meat" brand from a leading pork industry trade association.

Interpreting science at #EB2013 in Boston

While enjoying the excellent sessions sponsored by the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) at the Experimental Biology 2013 meetings here in Boston this week, I was struck once again by the way actual nutrition science research results are filtered or digested into short memes of conventional wisdom before they reach the public.

This filtering process is necessary, unavoidable, and even healthy.  And yet it is a key step, which brings politics and interest into the process of producing nutrition policy and dietary guidance.

Here is a passage from my chapter on Dietary Guidance in Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan).
Filtering is the process of reading a large body of research and concisely summarizing its relevant points. Because the scientific literature is so heterogeneous, its policy impact depends heavily on how the research is filtered.

Filtering may be biased toward certain types of conclusions. Food industry organizations hire scientists and public relations specialists to spread the good word about favorable studies, without mentioning unfavorable studies. The public relations specialists are evaluated according to their success in placing favorable stories in the mass media. Reporters do not purposely seek to serve as a vehicle for industry public relations, but they face intense pressure to generate buzz by reporting novel and surprising findings. Hence, even though the balance of evidence in the scientific literature changes only slowly, headlines each week tell the public that everything they previously believed about nutrition and health was a big fat lie.

To summarize a complex scientific literature with less bias, scientists prefer to rely on systematic evidence reviews. In a systematic evidence review, an inter-disciplinary team establishes a protocol, a document that describes in advance the procedure for selecting relevant research studies, reducing the temptation to concentrate on studies that are favorable to the team’s prior expectations. For each selected study, the team evaluates the strength of the evidence, again using criteria established in advance.

Systematic evidence reviews do have some limitations. While they can avoid errors that stem from selective reading of just favorable parts of the scientific literature, systematic evidence reviews cannot fix misinterpretations that are widespread in the literature. Also, such reviews may not reflect recent improvements in scientific research. Still, because of their transparency and replicability, systematic reviews can clarify the state of the evidence on contentious scientific issues.
If you are attending the Experimental Biology 2013 meetings this week in Boston, the book itself is on display today at the CRC Press booth (#531 in the exhibition hall).  Please stop by the booth, and please share your thoughts on whether food policy is a worthy topic of study at a meeting of scientists.

Who favors transparency for artificial sweeteners?

What organization favors rules to make sure consumers know what artificial sweeteners are in manufactured food and beverages?
Thirty-years ago the number of ingredients used to sweeten foods and beverages could be counted on one hand. Today, there are 25 ingredients used to replace sugar. Regardless whether you think this change benefits our food supply or not, there is no question that consumer understanding of what is sweetening their foods and beverages has failed to keep pace with this dramatic change.

Today many foods, even foods that do not claim to be sugar-free, now contain artificial sweeteners. To assist consumers in making informed choices about what is sweetening the products they purchase, the Sugar Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting changes to labeling regulations on sugar and alternative sweeteners. In this petition we asked that artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols be identified on the front of the package along with the amounts, similar to what is required in Canada.

If it is important to you to know if the product you purchase contains artificial sweeteners, let your congressional representatives know that FDA needs to take action on this important consumer issue.
Yes, as Marion Nestle's blog Food Politics points out this week, under the headline "politics makes strange bedfellows," this public interest manifesto comes from the Sugar Association.  The sugar industry organization's slogan is "sweet by nature."

See related coverage of artificial sweetener labeling policy on U.S. Food Policy this March.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Monday's attack on Boston

Thank you, all of you, around the world, who have been sending expressions of love and peace and wishing us well here in Boston this week.

On Monday, I was working in my office on Tufts' Boston Campus a mile away when I heard of the attack.  In sadness, I watched the news on the computer screen and listened to the sirens going by outside.  Then, I biked home.

Others on my campus, with medical and emergency response training, rushed into action.  The Tufts Medical Center staff had trained for such an event and saved lives this day.

Yesterday afternoon, university leaders and chaplains of five faiths met with the Boston Campus community (including the medical and dental schools as well as my nutrition school).  Tufts has a big presence in the Boston Marathon, with a large team competing and many people volunteering and cheering on the runners.  We said poems and sang prayers in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  People told of their work in the emergency room at Tufts Medical Center, as witnesses to the bombing itself, and as friends of the victims.  One student spoke of the third person who was killed, a graduate student in statistics at Boston University, so far from her home and family in China.

This attack did not teach me to feel vulnerable.  I have long known this already.

This week's attack on Boston was the second time in my life that I have been so close to a terrorist attack.  On September 11, I walked on foot across town and then across the National Mall from my USDA office on M street to pick up my 1-year-old son at the Department of Energy day care center.  As I crossed the Mall, I watched the smoke rising over the Pentagon across the Potomac River.  The day care center was empty, but there was a sign on the door telling me where to go pick him up from a nearby office.  I put my son in my child carrier backpack and walked several miles to my home in Columbia Heights, past block after block of stalled traffic evacuating the city.

And, though we seldom share much about such things in professional blogs, my Christian faith has a considerable focus on vulnerability.  I think about Jesus of Nazareth trying, without great success, to explain to his followers that he was not going to be the conquering invulnerable sort of leader they were expecting, or about pastor Martin Luther King in Memphis on the night before his death in 1968 basically explaining to his audience that he might die soon.

Vulnerability makes us stagger, but it needn't stop us outright.  I haven't posted here for a couple days, but I won't pause long.  Though it might seem oddly trivial, the next post you read on this blog will be about some small matter in U.S. food policy, and it won't be long in coming.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Reason Magazine highlights food policy

Baylen Linnekin's new column at Reason Magazine this week highlights the nationwide interest in food policy in recent years.

Linnekin gives at least four main examples, with links for more detail.

1. Emily Broad Leib's Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (see our coverage earlier this year). 
For example, a recent Harvard Law School news article claims "there may be no hotter topic in law schools right now than food law and policy[.]" 
2. My new book Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan).
“As a pundit once said, ‘When we leave farm policy to the experts, we actually leave it to the lobbyists,’” says Wilde, himself the author of the new book Food Policy in the United States. “This book pulls open the curtains and lets any interested reader understand the fundamentals of U.S. food policy.”
The pundit, by the way, was Ezra Klein.  Umm, may I say "pundit" is not pejorative?

3.  Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.  I have long admired Jayson's work and enjoyed contributing a chapter on food security to the multi-author handbook on the economics of food consumption and policy that Jayson co-edited for Oxford University Press a couple years ago.  After reading Linnekin's column, I have just this very minute pre-ordered Jayson's new book The Food Police.  It seems possible that Jayson's book will agree with one key theme of this blog (that government regulation sometimes overreaches badly) and perhaps downplay another (that more vigorous public sector action commonly is needed to advance the public interest, so we should all work together to make government more effective rather than undermining it).
Lusk, too, has a new food policy book out. In The Food Police, Lusk pushes back against what he sees as a dominant, pro-regulatory bent among food writers, which he calls “condescending paternalism.”
4.  David Gumpert's forthcoming book, which I also have just pre-ordered.
Still another such book, David Gumpert’s Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, is set for release this summer.
As a nice timely hook to close this post, the Consumer Federation of America's annual Food Policy Conference begins today (April 15) in Washington, DC. If you attend, say hello to the two Friedman School graduate students who have set up a table with flyers and copies of Food Policy in the United States.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Obama proposes food aid reforms

President Obama's budget proposal includes several sensible reforms to U.S. food aid to other countries.

As Eric Mu┼łoz at Oxfam America explains, "The proposal would end the practice of 'monetization' which provides cash to NGOs doing food security programs in developing countries but is highly inefficient and wastes a lot of money."

Also, the administration's proposal appears to reduce, but not eliminate, requirements that a large portion of U.S. food aid be purchased in the United States.  These requirements increase the aid programs' support among U.S. farmers, but generally are inefficient for meeting humanitarian assistance and development objectives.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah this week explained why local purchases closer to the recipient countries make more sense:
The President’s proposal reflects the growing, bipartisan consensus that the traditional approach to development must be modernized to help us efficiently meet the economic and moral challenges of our time.

The truth is that for years our practice in food assistance has lagged behind our knowledge. In the last decade, more than 30 different studies—from Cornell University to Lancet medical journal to the Government Accountability Office—have revealed the inefficiencies of the current system.

They’ve shown that buying food locally—instead of in the United States costs—much less—as much as 50 percent for cereals and as much as 31 percent for pulses. That’s because the average prices of buying and delivering American food across an ocean has increased from $390 per metric ton in 2001 to $1,180 today.

These costs eat into precious resources designed to feed hungry people—causing more than 16 percent of Title II funds to be spent on ocean shipping.

Buying food locally can also speed the arrival of life-saving aid by as many as 14 weeks. Those 98 days take on an entirely new meaning when you consider that waiting every additional day—every additional hour—can mean the difference between life and death.

Buying food locally is not only faster. It can also be a more effective approach to achieving our ultimate goal of replacing aid with self-sufficiency. In Bangladesh, we worked with Land o’ Lakes to buy cereal bars locally, helping create a commercially viable and nutritious product for the local market, while supporting U.S. jobs at home.
Shah's speech also highlighted the work of my Friedman School colleagues, led by Patrick Webb and Bea Rogers, to improve the nutritional quality of food aid.  Shah said, "In 2011, we completed a two-year food aid quality review in partnership with Tufts University that resulted in the most far-reaching improvements to U.S. food aid since 1966."

Demonstration kitchen at a clinic in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where mothers combine food aid products with local ingredients to help treat child undernutrition. Source: Patrick Webb 2008.


Update (later the same day): Corrected a name spelling as suggested in the comments. Thanks!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

An inter-disciplinary approach to U.S. food policy

An excerpt from the first chapter of Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan).
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is the federal  government’s most authoritative official statement on nutrition and health issues (discussed at length in Chapter 8), presents a social and ecological framework for food consumption and physical activity decisions (see Figure). Similar models are found in many other high-profile nutrition policy documents (Institute of Medicine, 2012). To analyze major national problems of obesity and chronic disease, this framework goes far beyond immediate causes such as food and beverage intake and physical activity. Like planetary orbits that are farther from the center, the outer layers list more distant influences on food choices.

The framework calls attention to important topics, including agriculture (Chapter 2), the food and beverage manufacturing industries (Chapter 5), the retailing and restaurant industries (Chapter 6), marketing and the media (Chapter 9) and socioeconomic factors  (Chapter 10). Once nutrition and public health professionals begin to explore these more fundamental influences on food and beverage consumption, they find themselves engaged with challenging topics in economics and political science.

At first, this engagement can be unnerving. When interacting with patients, professionals in medical fields are rightly proud of their ability to diagnose problems and prescribe an appropriate remedy. It is tempting at first to adapt this medical patient approach to food policy applications. For example, if expanding food portion sizes contribute to rising rates of obesity, it is tempting to say government agencies should prescribe smaller portion sizes. If nutrient-dense foods cost too much, it is tempting to say government agencies should prescribe a price ceiling for fruits and vegetables. It is disappointing if policy-makers reject such proposals as politically infeasible. It is downright frustrating if policy-makers say with a straight face that a well-intentioned nutrition policy prescription is unwise. Yet, except in special settings such as school meal programs, determining portion sizes may be a decision that people do not want to delegate to their government. A price ceiling for fruits and vegetables may have unintended consequences, such as reducing the incentives to grow fruits and vegetables.

The outer layers of the social ecological framework bring nutrition policy into contact with many other societal objectives, such as a thriving economy, a healthy environment, poverty alleviation and effective political governance. Powerful policy actors in these outer layers do not—and sometimes should not—behave as if food consumption and physical activity stood alone as the sun at the center of the social ecological solar system. Governments balance food and nutrition concerns against other considerations, just as individuals and families do.

As we explore more deeply the normative question of what food policies best serve the public good, it will appear necessary to discern which decisions should be delegated to governments and which decisions should be made by individuals interacting in economic markets. And, as we explore more deeply the positive question of what policies can win political support, it will appear necessary to anticipate how a variety of producer and consumer interests will respond to such proposals.

These inter-disciplinary explorations are more difficult than simply prescribing the right policy medicine, but ultimately they offer both sharper policy insight and greater potential for political success.

Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Food stamp challenge (with abundant talent)

In my presentation at Virginia Tech last month, I mentioned the food stamp challenge, a short-term exercise in living on the food budget available to a very low-income participant in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

One of the students there began the challenge and documented it on a blog, posting food photography and receipts.  Although some people attempt a food stamp challenge using average benefits as the spending benchmark, I think Clara was correct to use the maximum SNAP benefit as a benchmark (this is the benefit amount received by the lowest-income program participants).

Of course, few of us have the talent to make a food stamp challenge look so good.  Please do not use Clara's blog posts for the purpose of redesigning federal food stamp policy!  Instead, just consider Clara's experience as one example of the diversity of experiences that people have with the economics of food spending, preparation, and ... clearly ... enjoyment.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Farm Bill impact on Western agriculture

I wish I could attend this conference in Davis, CA.  From the organizers' press release:
Farm Bill conference to examine impact on Western Agriculture

May 14, 2013,   8:00 a.m.   Conference Center, UC Davis

Agricultural leaders and economists will discuss the new Farm Bill and its impacts on agriculture in the West May 14 at an all-day conference at the UC Davis Conference Center.

Karen Ross, secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture and former U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture chief of staff, and Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, will share their insights on what the Farm Bill is likely to mean for agriculture in the western states.

“The Farm Bill affects every California commodity,” said Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and conference coordinator. “Growers, lenders, agribusiness executives, policy advisors, agricultural leaders, university professionals, students and everyone who values comprehensive and objective information about the upcoming Farm Bill and U.S. farm policy are invited to participate in the conversation.”

Specific sessions include:

  • “The Farm Bill: What it Does and What it Means.” Joseph Glauber, UCDA chief economist, will explain what the Farm Bill does.  Now working on his fifth Farm Bill, Glauber is one of the most objective and knowledgeable experts on U.S. agricultural policy.
  • "The Expanding Role of Risk Management and Crop Insurance Policy" led by Hyunok Lee, UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, with participation from growers and risk management experts.
  • "What Changing Federal Dairy Policy Means for Western Dairy and Related Industries" led by Professor Joseph Balagtas, Purdue University, with participation from producers, dairy industry experts and policy advocates.
  • "How Federal Conservation, Energy and Climate Affects Policy for Western Agriculture" led by Professors John Antle and JunJie Wu, Oregon State University, with participation of scientists and stakeholders.
The conference is sponsored by OreCal, an Agricultural and Resource Policy Research collaboration between the Center for Agricultural & Environmental Policy at Oregon State University and the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.

More information about the conference is online.  May 9 is the last day to register online.  Registration is $100, $50 for students, and covers conference materials, meals and the post conference reception.

What business model lets a person represent a neighborhood?

First, consider this 1999 article in the New York Times, which quotes community activist and businessperson Majora Carter on the topic of a garbage transfer station that had been proposed for the South Bronx.  This 1999 argument pitted (on the one side) an African American-owned business and a clean-air environmental group in favor of the transfer station against (on the other side) community advocates concerned about pollution from the transfer station.
The opponents shouted down representatives of the garbage company, saying the area already handles more than its share of garbage. They also accused the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which traditionally has opposed such projects, of accepting money from the company in exchange for its support.

''You are accepting money from them and playing their community partner,'' Majora Carter, an official with the Point Community Development Corporation, shouted at members of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. ''This is obscene.'' ...

''I don't care if it's a minority owned business,'' Ms. Carter, of the Point, who is also black, yelled at Mr. Jones at the public meeting. ''I'm a businesswoman too. I would not sell out my brothers and sisters that way.''
Later, but only later, read the harsh article today about Majora Carter in the New York Times.  This article may be unfair to Carter.  Yet, perhaps, Carter may have been too harsh in her criticism of Robert Jones, 3rd, and the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition in 1999.

For me, the lesson is two-fold: (a) we should have very high expectations for the ethical standards of our public interest organizations and entrepreneurs, and yet (b) these expectations should not be so high as to be impossible for any thriving operation to satisfy in the real world. 

Just like for-profit organizations, public interest organizations need a viable business model.  They may aim for small local impacts with cobbled together funding, or they may aim for larger impact with more substantial funding.  In the latter case, they must be vigilant about conflicts of interest and transparent about funding sources, but being a businessperson is not itself a sign of corruption.  Notice that even in the 1999 article, Majora Carter always described herself as a businesswoman.

[I had been thinking about similar issues in this February post.]

IOM's Food Forum announces a workshop on sustainable diets, May 7-8

The Institute of Medicine's Food Forum announces an upcoming workshop on a great topic:

May 7-8, 2013

The National Academies Auditorium 
  2101 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC   
The Institute of Medicine's Food Forum and Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine are  holding a 1.5 day workshop on “Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.” We hope you will attend. The workshop will explore current and emerging knowledge on the food and nutrition policy implications of the increasing strain on the natural resources in our food system, and seek to further discussion of how to incorporate environmental sustainability into U.S. dietary guidance policies.   

Visit here for more information and to register for the workshop

The agenda (.pdf) includes former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan as keynote speaker, my Tufts colleague Christian Peters speaking about land use effects of dietary patterns, and myself speaking about consumer responses to economic incentives.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

U.S. meat consumption fell after 2004

According to USDA data on food consumption per capita, U.S. meat consumption fell from about 2004 to 2010 (the most recent data available).

Beef consumption peaked in 2002 and has fallen about 12% since then.  Pork consumption peaked in about 1999 and has fallen about 11% since then.  And I had not realized that chicken consumption peaked in about 2006 and has fallen almost 5% since then.

Total combined consumption of beef, pork, and chicken peaked in about 2004 and has fallen more than 6% since then.

I think these trends likely are driven both by economic recession and by increasing health and environmental awareness.

Americans consume substantially more beef, pork, and chicken than is necessary for a balanced and healthy diet.  The federal government's mainstream advice on diet and health, MyPlate, suggests that about a quarter of the dinner plate can come from the protein group (which includes fish, seafood, beans, peas, soy foods, nuts, and eggs, in addition to beef, pork, and chicken).

The unusually high U.S. consumption of beef, pork, and chicken also raises environmental concerns, with implications for water quality (when nutrients in manure reach water sources) and land use (because of the large amounts of animal feed that are converted comparatively inefficiently into meat-based foods).

It is worth mentioning that meat is a good source of protein and several other nutrients, but these nutrients are not currently under-supplied in U.S. diets.  Similarly, animal agriculture is a particularly sensible use of certain grasslands that are environmentally unsuitable for crop production, but this grass-based production system is not where most of our beef, pork, and chicken comes from.

Overall, I don't think the government should be too pushy when it comes to influencing people's diets.  It seems quite wise simply to accept and accomodate the recent market-driven downward trends in meat consumption, without taking government action to oppose them.

These trends are a good thing for our health, environment, and economy.
Source: interactive chart by the author using USDA food availability data.

Update (later the same day): I just saw that Steve Baragona at Voice of America yesterday described this same trend.  I had been thinking about this topic, because my colleague Paul McNamara mentioned related work on trends in vegetarian consumption by a student in his department at the University of Illinois, Daniel Karney.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Biotech rider is "very, very bad government"

Senator Jon Tester and Mother Jones journalist Tom Philpott summarize the problems with the new Senate rider that protects Monsanto technologies from particular consequences of review in the courts, on the TakeAway on National Public Radio today.

Senator Tester says in the audio below, "Congress screwed up....  This isn't the way our government is supposed to work."
As Tom Philpott, food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, explains, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to approve genetically-modified crops before companies could sell the seeds to farmers. In 2008 and 2009, the Center for Food Safety, along with other environmental groups, sued the USDA in federal court, claiming that the USDA approved two genetically engineered crops without a detailed environmental impact statement.

The Center for Food Safety won the suit in both cases, but the rider on this year's continuing resolution would bar environmental groups from suing the USDA for these purposes.
As with the proposed genetically modified (GM) salmon (covered earlier on this blog), my view is that GM supporters and opponents alike should speak up for adequate democratic review of these policies.  For GMO supporters in particular, it is foolish to try to slip these policies through Congress as riders to unrelated essential legislation.  A key part of the argument in favor of GM technology is supporters' claim that our government is capable of giving these technologies a scientifically credible, independent, and skeptical review.  It is unwise for Monsanto to protect its GM technologies from review by proving how easily our federal government can be manipulated.  This is the same government on which Monsanto and all other GM supporters depend to reassure the consuming public about the safety of GM foods.

Update (same day). Agricultural economist Darren Hudson says pretty much the same thing I do about this rider. I came across his post on a link from Jayson Lusk's blog.